Engineering Professor Under Investigation for Harassment

Reporting processes leave students unsure where to turn

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Illustration by Darin Connolly, Manne Green and Sabrina Ilumin

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains language related to sexual harassment, racial harassment and verbal abuse.

*A pseudonym is used to protect the source’s identity

“I don’t think I can take this Dimitris,” Alex Muhammad* told his spouse in October 2017. “He’s awful to me. Even in the meeting yesterday he told me to ‘shut the fuck up.’”

Muhammad was a recent arrival, but Skyler Bennett* had grown used to life in the lab of computer science and engineering professor Dimitris Achlioptas. 

“I knew that Dimitris was a little bit unhinged from taking his class,” Bennett said. “He had been inappropriate, and he had been kind of cruel, but I thought that I had seen how far it would go.” 

By December 2018, both graduate students would abandon months — in Bennett’s case, years — of research to protect their well-being. Tired of feeling verbally harassed, they filed allegations against Achlioptas detailing instances of racial and sexual harassment.

Since reporting, Muhammad and Bennett have been slogging through bureaucratic policies so dense even the officers overseeing them had to train for hours to understand them all.

“[Reporting] takes a toll on you. You lose a part of yourself,” Muhammad said. “[…] I thought Santa Cruz would be a place that had values and it doesn’t.”

Interactions with Achlioptas

Bennett first met Achlioptas as a third-year computer science major when he took his “Introduction to Analysis of Algorithms” class in winter 2016. He continued to work with Achlioptas and chemistry professor Nikolaos Sgourakis on a project during the summer of that year. 

Throughout summer, Bennett spent many hours with Achlioptas, who would call him “moron,” “retard,” “idiot,” “loser,” “pussy,” “punk,” “autistic” and “asshole,” Bennett said in a statement to academic employee relations director Susan Fellows on Jan. 22, 2019. 

Bennett alleged that the vulgar language metastasized into sexualized comments. In his statement Bennett said that before expressing disapproval, Achlioptas said, “Are you ready to be anally raped?” among other similar comments. 

Despite feeling unsafe, Bennett continued working under Achlioptas’s advisement because of his project’s success. He began pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at UCSC in fall 2017.  

Bennett said just days into his graduate program Achlioptas berated him over the phone, accusing Bennett of making an error. In the same phone call, Bennett expressed his discomfort to Achlioptas, who said “I believe you have a little bird chirping in your ear that you are ‘suffering abuse’ when that is far from the truth,” according to Bennett’s statement.

Bennett considered quitting the project after that phone call. 

Also in fall 2017, Alex Muhammad came to UCSC to begin a doctoral program with Achlioptas as his adviser. Muhammad and Bennett worked in close proximity for about a year. During that time they told each other about their experiences with Achlioptas.

Muhammad, who is Muslim and of Palestinian descent, alleged that Achlioptas called him a terrorist multiple times during his interview over summer 2017. He also alleged in his official complaint to UCSC that racially and sexually charged interactions continued throughout their time working together. 

On March 19, 2017, 11 days after Muhammad was admitted to UCSC, Achlioptas sent an email to several of his new graduate students with the subject line, “Team Terror.” According to Bennett’s statement, the email contained images of Achlioptas with three students of Greek, Iranian and Palestinian descent, including Muhammad. 

Muhammad’s complaint alleged that Achlioptas told him he resembled terrorists on wanted posters and that Achlioptas insulted his beard on multiple occasions.

Bennett also described witnessing Achlioptas call Muhammad a terrorist on multiple occasions and telling Muhammad that his beard made him look like “the enemy.”

“Some time in winter [2018], Dimitris went to Germany and when he came back he said, ‘[Alex], I was in the airport and I saw this FBI wanted poster of this Muslim guy. I swear he looked exactly like you,’” Bennett said. “One time he tried to tell [Alex] he should shave his beard.’”

In his complaint Muhammad describes that once while in Achlioptas’s car, the professor asked him if he performs oral sex on his wife. Muhammad said when he dismissed the question, Achlioptas began describing, in explicit detail, how much he enjoys performing oral sex on women.

“It felt like he was living the act, and I was extremely uncomfortable,” Muhammad said. “Dimitris never let me give consent. He took consent. You never felt you could say no to Dimitris. He took it and if you ever said no you got humiliated.”

Muhammad and Bennett asserted that Achlioptas would also ask personal favors, some of which unsettled them.

Muhammad was in Europe for part of summer 2018. In his Sept. 1 report, Muhammad stated that in July, Achlioptas asked him to transport $9,500 in cash from the U.K. to the U.S. and drop the money at his friend’s house. Through email correspondence with Achlioptas, Muhammad expressed significant discomfort with the request to transport money overseas.

Both complainants said the lab culture made it difficult to say no to Achlioptas’s requests.

“I definitely had a sense that I needed him,” Bennett said. “I think a normal thing that enables patterns of abuse is that you get conditioned to have your sense of self-worth depend on somebody’s behavior. And you sort of feel like you have to take on all the responsibility for their feelings and their actions.”

Once, when Bennett and Muhammad were in Achlioptas’s office, Bennett said he asked Achlioptas if he ever worried his students would tell the world about his behavior. Bennett and Muhammad allege that Achlioptas went on to describe family connections to a hitman who charges $5,000 per assassination. Muhammad told this to academic employee relations director Susan Fellows in a conversation on Jan. 25. 

“Dimitris said to us, ‘If you ever turn on me, $5,000 is what your life is worth,’” Muhammad said.

Bennett and Muhammad said Achlioptas may have been joking, but they both felt threatened.

Reporting Achlioptas

Muhammad said no one in the tech industry, where he has worked for over 10 years, would have tolerated Islamophobic speech like Achlioptas’s alleged terrorist comments. Within the UC, complaints like this aren’t filed through a human resources department, and codes of conduct are hard to enforce.

For Muhammad and Bennett, reporting brought a host of new issues.

Faculty discipline procedures start with the Faculty Code of Conduct (FCC). The FCC outlines behavioral expectations and lays out disciplinary processes, should a faculty member violate the code. It’s also one of the only UC policies that includes language that would allow a student to report the behavior of faculty as harassment, assault or abuse.

Once an FCC violation is reported, investigation and stages of deliberation by UC governing bodies mean a resolution takes months to years.

“The faculty senate has authority to discipline faculty, but the only body that has authority to fire faculty are the regents,” said Isabel Dees, Title IX director at UCSC. “It’s on the recommendation of the chancellor and that’s why it can be years.”

Survivor support coordinator at Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) and Title IX student advisory board member Gianna Passalacqua said the FCC contains minimal language geared toward protecting students. Passalacqua said the policy creates a mutually beneficial transaction between the university and the faculty, a dynamic which tends not to prioritize students. 

If a student reports an FCC violation, the complaint can be routed through one of more than 10 offices that oversee student grievance processes, including Title IX and the Dean of Students Office, depending on the content of the allegations.

In a summit this year, Title IX and other offices met to review all the grievance processes open to students. 

“The fact that we just had a summit to even identify all the processes is an acknowledgement that we don’t even know how many there are, there are too many,” Dees said. “Can you imagine someone having to go to 12 different offices? That’s not an acceptable student experience.”

Muhammad reported Achlioptas first, and about four months later, Bennett followed suit.

Aug. 22, 2018

After over a year working together, Muhammad notified Achlioptas that he would not be returning for a second year at UCSC.

Aug. 28

Muhammad emailed Baskin School of Engineering (BSOE) dean Alexander Wolf describing numerous instances he referred to as racial, religious and sexual harassment. Muhammad also informed Wolf he would be leaving UCSC.

Aug. 31

Muhammad met with a Title IX officer for the first time. On the same day, a staff member at the Title IX Office notified Muhammad she had accidentally sent an initial outreach email to Achlioptas, an email meant to be seen only by the complainant. The breach alerted Achlioptas that Muhammad had reported allegations of harassment against him. 

“I found that really inappropriate,” Muhammad said. “Because, let’s say I had decided to change my mind and stay. Now Dimitris knows I filed a complaint and I couldn’t come back at that point.”

Sept. 1

Muhammad filed a formal complaint against Achlioptas through the online UC whistleblower hotline. 

Sept. 7

The UC Student-Workers Union (UAW) 2865 submitted a separate grievance charging UCSC with violating multiple articles of the UAW’s collective bargaining agreement in reference to Muhammad’s case. 

The alleged violations include the Title IX Office leaking Muhammad’s confidential information with Achlioptas and Achlioptas’s behavior creating an unsafe work environment.

UAW 2865 graduate student representative Ana McTaggart expressed their opinion that the university does not prioritize the needs of students.

“That case involves a professor allegedly harassing, along both sexual and racial lines, multiple students,” McTaggart said. “I would say the university does not treat a hostile work environment seriously. They ignore cases of sexual assault and harassment.”

Sept. 8

In an email, Muhammad told Achlioptas that any further communications from him would not receive response.

Sept. 17

Muhammad moved to another state.

Sept. 19

Muhammad contacted UCSC Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff Lucy Rojas and Dean of Students Garrett Naiman to request a full, formal investigation and grievance process. 

Oct. 9

During a meeting, Rojas and Naiman told Muhammad they planned to look into hiring a third-party investigator to investigate Muhammad’s allegations, Muhammad said.

Oct. 11

Rojas emailed Muhammad an annotated list of his allegations against Achlioptas. The mark-up was meant to form the basis for Muhammad’s complaint.

Rojas classified the allegations separately as relevant to  the student grievance policy, performance issues, Title IX or whistleblower. In her email, Rojas classified allegations of Achlioptas telling Muhammad to “shut the fuck up,” as well as calling Muhammad a “fucking moron,” “loser,” “idiot,” and “incompetent,” as performance issues.

Nov. 11

Muhammad said Achlioptas emailed him regarding a journal paper submission, despite Muhammad’s Sept. 8 instruction to cease all contact. After Muhammad alerted UCSC of this, dean Alexander Wolf initiated a no contact directive.

Nov. 26

Muhammad submitted a formal grievance to UCSC to initiate an investigation into Achlioptas. A formal grievance catalyzes a formal resolution process — in Muhammad’s case, an investigation. Muhammad’s grievance outlines 24 allegations against Achlioptas with notes on the policies alleged to have been violated. It also includes a list of remedies demanded of the UC.

Dec. 16

Rojas, as the complaint resolution officer for Muhammad’s case, sent Muhammad an email responding to allegations 1-20 detailed in the formal grievance. She dismissed allegations 21-24, stating they did not constitute violations of university policy. These allegations included other faculty members witnessing Achlioptas’s alleged behavior.

Rojas urged Muhammad to file allegations 1-20 through the faculty discipline process rather than the student grievance process because the remedies sought could not be afforded by the student grievance policy. The faculty discipline process would be the only route to Achlioptas’s termination — Muhammad’s desired penalty. 

“If a requested remedy was that a student wanted to see a faculty member fired, this policy can’t do that,” said Rojas, speaking generally about the student grievance policy. “So that case would be referred to the faculty conduct process because that’s not something that can be affected here. […] Some of the outcomes here really come through kind of a negotiation, like asking to retake a test, or sometimes students asked for an apology.”

Dec. 20

Muhammad said Achlioptas tried to call him via FaceTime. Muhammad immediately notified Garrett Naiman, Rojas and BSOE dean Alexander Wolf of this violation of the no contact directive, which classifies as prohibited behavior under the Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (SVSH) policy.

Dec. 21

Muhammad revised his grievance and demanded Rojas initiate a third-party investigation. Bennett reported his allegations to Title IX and academic employee relations director Susan Fellows. 

Jan. 22, 2019 

Bennett filed a formal complaint against Achlioptas through Title IX.

Jan. 25 

Muhammad notified Susan Fellows about the hitman reference Achlioptas allegedly made to him and Bennett. Fellows asked Muhammad if he felt unsafe, but he replied that he didn’t, so Fellows didn’t report to the campus police.

Feb. 7

Fellows notified Muhammad that she had failed to redact his new home address before sharing his grievance documentation with Achlioptas. This was the second time the university breached Muhammad’s confidentiality and shared personal information with Achlioptas. 

“Title IX made a similar mistake when it alerted Achlioptas of my complaint, and it feels like UCSC’s mistakes keep putting me at risk,” Muhammad said in his response to Fellows.

Responses to the Process

UCSC only agreed to begin a third-party investigation once Bennett came forward, Muhammad said. There are now two open investigations into Achlioptas — one Muhammad filed under the faculty discipline process and one Bennett filed under Title IX.

“When I was in this mess with Dimitris, I thought I was alone,” Muhammad said. “And then [Bennett] came forward, and then I said, ‘Oh, it wasn’t just me.’ One thing I’ve learned is Dimitris was awful to a lot of people. And UCSC, by saying ‘be silent,’ has tried to prevent people from knowing what happened to prevent them from coming forward.”

Title IX Office determined that none of Muhammad’s allegations constitute a violation of the SVSH policy. The university hasn’t disclosed much more than that to Muhammad, he said. After Muhammad filed his complaint in September, UCSC took almost seven months to initiate interviews with Bennett and Muhammad.

As it stands now, both Bennett and Muhammad feel the university has left them in the dark.

“The process is poorly designed,” Bennett said. “But more than that, I don’t think there is a person on this campus who feels that it is their responsibility to deal with people like me and people like [Muhammad].”

Achlioptas is participating in the investigations while on paid leave from UCSC. His lawyer, Michael J. DeNiro, a professor emeritus in the UC system, provided comment on behalf of Achlioptas. 

“The complaints filed against my client by students at UCSC were assigned for investigation to separate offices at UCSC as alleged violations of Title IX and alleged violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct. Prof. Achlioptas is participating in the investigations. My client has confidence in the integrity of due process at UCSC, and is confident that he will be exonerated when the investigations end,” DeNiro said in an email that contained a longer statement.

Achlioptas was not available for comment, but he released a statement on his personal web page on May 31, 2019 in response to an article the Mercury News ran the previous day. In his statement, Achlioptas said he is not “anti-Muslim,” stating that both his young children attend daycares run by Muslim and Pakistani women. 

Achlioptas referenced both complainants in his statement.

“Several of the allegations by Student1 concern events that occurred in May 2018, during the celebration of our son’s second birthday party,” Achlioptas said in the statement. “Student1 was invited, along with his wife, and approximately 70 other guests. One more UCSC student was invited (not mentioned in the [Mercury News] article). Student1, his wife, and the other UCSC student were the first people to arrive at approximately 2pm. They were also the last people to leave, well past midnight.”

In his statement, Achlioptas said 15 students from the most recent class he taught at UCSC nominated him for an excellence in teaching award, and that, to his understanding, this was the most nominations received among all professors teaching large classes at UCSC that year.

Faculty Involvement

Muhammad said UCSC’s handling of his and Bennett’s cases is indicative of a larger, systematic issue. The UC cares more about protecting faculty than protecting students, he said.

“People like Dimitris exist because faculty, staff and administration enable them,” Muhammad said. “And until faculty, staff and administration value doing the right thing over allowing predators to prey on students there will be more [Alexs] and there will be more [Skylers.] And that is the only reason I’m doing this — because I don’t want any more [Alexs] and I don’t want any more [Skylers].”

Nikolaos Sgourakis, an assistant professor in UCSC’s chemistry and biochemistry department, worked closely with Achlioptas. Sgourakis witnessed Achlioptas call Muhammad a terrorist, according to allegation 22 in Muhammad’s complaint.

Graduate students’ success is often at the mercy of their advisers. Faculty advisers oversee research, connect students to mentors and projects, help them get published and sit on thesis committees. But if faculty are reluctant to condemn inappropriate behavior, the burden of speaking up falls on students.

“I wish that when I showed up to UCSC, there had been a big fucking banner hanging over the CS department saying ‘here there be monsters.’ I wish I had just known,” said Morgan Spencer,* a student organizer in the department and witness to Achlioptas’s allegedly abusive behavior.

In late August 2018, Muhammad abandoned months of research and alerted BSOE dean Wolf of his intention to transfer out of UCSC. He now resides and studies in another state. 

“I had a choice in my life between education and abuse, and for a year I chose abuse. And students shouldn’t have to make that choice,” Muhammad said. “And unless Dimitris is gonve, more students will have to make that choice.” 

Being involved in an ongoing investigation of his adviser has made Bennett’s road to graduation rocky. Bennett said Alex Pang, the computer science and engineering graduate program director, said it would be inappropriate for Bennett to write a thesis that contained material Achlioptas had made intellectual contributions to without Achlioptas’s involvement.

Disappointed and reluctant to start a new thesis from scratch, Bennett emailed BSOE dean Alexander Wolf to ask for a thesis committee without Achlioptas. Wolf agreed, Bennett said. 

But the committee had a request that Bennett found strange. They wanted him to include a subsection of the introduction in which he was to state exactly what he did on the paper and list each of his contributors, Bennett said.

Awaiting Resolution

Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Marlene Tromp and Wolf sent out a public response to the allegations against Achlioptas on May 29. Tromp and Wolf emphasized the university’s dedication to the investigations into Achlioptas’s conduct.

“We understand our community’s alarm that our silence on this matter signals tolerance. This is simply untrue,” Tromp and Wolf said in the email. “[…] In most instances, there is also very little we can say publicly, because of the privacy rights afforded to all parties, to protect the integrity of our investigation, and to protect the due process rights of all involved.”

In April, Bennett said he was concerned that some of his questions for the university remained unanswered. Because responsibility for investigations is diffused between offices and their employees, students can feel ignored and lost in administrative processes.

On Feb. 1, Title IX director Isabel Dees told Bennett the investigation would happen mostly in February and there would likely be an evidence review in March, Bennett said. Bennett heard back from an investigator in March. The investigation is ongoing at time of press.

“We have several lines of questioning with the university, things we’re trying to find out, that are months old, and will just never be answered,” Bennett said. “I really don’t know why that is. I suspect it’s that no one feels like they’re the person who’s supposed to respond to that email. I don’t even know if they’re talking about it.”

On May 31, the third-party investigator looking into Muhammad’s allegations routed through the faculty discipline process notified Muhammad the investigation had concluded. The investigator told Muhammad to direct any questions to academic employee relations director Susan Fellows.

Muhammad was not told the results of his investigation. Fellows told Bennett that the university would notify him if the executive vice chancellor decided to pursue discipline, Bennett said. He also said Fellows told him over the phone that she anticipates the discipline will be decided in one to four months.

Since reporting allegations against Achlioptas, Muhammad and Bennett’s lives have been turned upside down. They have experienced academic and emotional turmoil and are still unsure where the investigations stand.

“Any system that inherently lacks transparency is a system that will be abused,” Muhammad said. “And that’s what’s going to happen here. I don’t believe Dimitris will get a punishment that warrants what he deserves, and this system is designed to protect people who ruin lives. Dimitris has ruined my life and UCSC doesn’t care.”